March 18th, 2018

Music by Southminster’s bell choir:
Now the Green Blade Riseth arr. Kevin McChesney

Qur’an 31:16-17
Beloved! If it be but the weight of a mustard seed, be it in a rock, in the heavens, or on the earth, God will bring it forth. Truly God is Subtle, Aware.

Beloved! Perform the prayer, enjoin right and forbid wrong, and bear patiently whatever may befall you. That is indeed a course worthy of resolve.

The Seed Market Rumi
Can you find another market like this?
Where, with your one rose
you can buy hundreds of rose gardens?

for one seed
get a whole wilderness?

For one weak breath,
a divine wind?

You’ve been fearful
of being absorbed in the ground,
or drawn up by the air.

Now, your waterbead lets go
and drops into the ocean,
where it came from.

It no longer has the form it had,
but it’s still water.
The essence is the same.

This giving up is not a repenting.
It’s a deep honoring of yourself.

When the ocean comes to you
as a lover,
marry at once,
for God’s sake!

Don’t postpone it!
Existence has no better gift.

No amount of searching will find this.

A perfect falcon,
for no reason
has landed on your shoulder,
and become yours.

John 12:20-33
There were some Greeks among those who had come up to worship at the festival. These people came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida, Galilee, and requested of him, “Sir, we would like to meet Jesus.”

Philip goes and tells Andrew, and both Andrew and Philip go and tell Jesus. And Jesus responds: “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. Let me tell you this: unless the kernel of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single seed, but if it dies, it produces a great harvest. If you love your life you’ll lose it, but if you hate your life in this world you’ll preserve it for unending life. Whoever serves me must follow me, for wherever I am, my servant must be there also. Whoever serves me the Father will honor.

Now my ‘life is in turmoil,’ but should I say, ‘Father rescue me from this moment’? No, it was to face this moment that I came. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice spoke out the sky, “I have glorified it and I will glorify even more.”

The crowd there heard this, and some people remarked that it was thunder, others that a heavenly messenger had spoken to him.

“That voice did not come for me but for you,” Jesus answered. “Now sentence is passed on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And if I’m elevated from the earth, I’ll take everyone with me.” (He said this to show what kind of death he was going to die.)

Being Seeds

Christianity centers around the martyrdom of Jesus. The four gospels that made it into the New Testament all feature extensive accounts of the execution of Jesus. There were other gospels of Jesus, notably, the Gospel of Thomas, that do not feature Jesus as a martyr. Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas is primarily a teacher.

Scholars of early Christianity like Elaine Pagels and Karen King have shown that martyrdom was not the only possible path of early Christianity. They have a commentary on the Gospel of Judas that opposes the emphasis on martyrdom, particularly, the expectation to get oneself killed for God as the path of true Christianity.

Early church fathers painted martyrdom in a glorious way. The martyr would be resurrected and receive rewards in heaven. The Gospel of Judas criticized these leaders who encouraged this martyrdom.

Ignatius, writing not long after the Gospel of John, in 108 CE, wrote about “being ground up by the teeth of wild beasts to become God’s wheat.”

Tertullian, a century later, famously said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Early Christian literature and medieval literature is filled with stories of martyrs and their punishments and in some cases, their zeal to become martyrs, to die violently for their faith in expectation of a reward in heaven.

There is a sense that Christianity did succeed because of this “thrill of martyrdom.” What a great heroic way to go, to be killed as martyr for God.

A popular game in church camp is “Persecution” where children are taught to follow Jesus by dying for the faith.

The Gospel of John, pushes heavily on this glorious martyrdom tradition. In John, Jesus has not doubts whatsoever about dying on the cross as a way to be elevated to God. He even mocks the notion put forth in the other gospels about Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. For John there is no agony.

Now my ‘life is in turmoil,’ but should I say, ‘Father rescue me from this moment’? No, it was to face this moment that I came. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice spoke out the sky, “I have glorified it and I will glorify even more.”

There is no role for Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for Jesus in John’s gospel. Jesus carries his own cross. The Gospel of John sees Jesus’ death as planting a seed. Jesus is a kernel of wheat who by being martyred, by dying, ultimately, produces a great harvest.

The Gospel of John has Jesus encourage his followers to do the same thing:

Let me tell you this: unless the kernel of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single seed, but if it dies, it produces a great harvest. If you love your life you’ll lose it, but if you hate your life in this world you’ll preserve it for unending life. Whoever serves me must follow me, for wherever I am, my servant must be there also. Whoever serves me the Father will honor.

You can see the link from this passage in John’s gospel to Tertullian:

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Or Ignatius:

“Being ground up by the teeth of wild beasts is to become God’s wheat.”

The word that is translated as martyr in English comes from the Greek word martus. When we hear martyr we hear someone who has been killed for their faith or some other cause.

But from the Greek, martus, in the 35 times it appears in the New Testament is translated as witness. A witness is someone from a legal sense who has seen something. It also has a religious sense as in bearing witness, to testify that something is true, to say what you have seen.

Martus can be translated as witness or martyr, depending on the context.

Martin Luther King Jr., was a martus in both senses of the word. He was a witness and as it turned out a martyr. But it wasn’t his death that made him important. It was his witness. It was in his speeches, in his expression of hope, in his criticism of the ways of injustice, violence, and death, that made him a martus for faith.

He was a martyr. He was first and foremost a witness. He lived out the full meaning of the Greek word, martus, witness and martyr. He didn’t seek to die. He sought to live and by his witness encourage others to live.

Imam Husayn. Grandson of Prophet Mohammad. Husayn Day this year will be April 28th. I have been honored to be a speaker at a panel honoring Imam Husayn. History recounts that he was beheaded in battle and thus became a martyr. But he first of all was a witness. He spoke out against oppression and injustice in his own time.

Sheik Nimr Al-Nimr, was Shia cleric. I met his son, Mohammad Al-Nimr. Sheik Nimr Al-Nimr was executed by the Saudi government because they wanted to silence him. Sheik Nimr spoke boldly against the human rights abuses by the House of Saud. His witness has become a seed that continues to grow in those who remembered not just him, not just his death, but the truth he told.

To what are you a witness?

Those who preserve free speech.
Those who accept uncomfortable truths.
Those who defend the falsely accused.
Those who imagine a better world.

What I am hearing as our nation has taken a turn toward fear over the past sixteen years, is a sense of despair, that nothing will do any good. That the opposition is too great. There is nothing that can be done. That hearing the truth or speaking it is of little value because

“There is nothing I can do to change it.”
“What can I do about it?”

The answer from our religious traditions to those questions are, you can be a martus. A witness. Record it. Bear witness. It may come to fruit later.

When those questions of our inability to solve the world’s problems put us in a state of distress or inaction, then we are encouraged to remember that we are also seeds.

Earlier I quoted Tertullian that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

I would say it differently:

“The truth of those who bear witness is the seed of human flourishing.”

There is a phrase in our Presbyterian Book of Order a paragraph called truth and goodness and it was put together in probably the 18th century and so it has that type of language to it.

Truth is in order to goodness and the great touchstone of truth is its tendency to promote holiness according to our Saviour’s rule. By their fruits you shall know them and that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level and represents it as if no consequence what a person’s opinions are. On the contrary we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, Truth and Duty, otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.

There is no postmodernism in this passage that says who knows what truth is, it’s all relative. There is something here that says no. There must be some kind of true thing in the world. I’m not so postmodern that I’m so cynical that spin is the only thing that matters because that’s what we live under now–the spin of the powerful who give us what they think is the truth. They tell us it’s the truth so that we simply go along with them.

And so it’s been courageous people throughout history who have said no we will not acquiesce to the spin of the powerful. We will bear witness to the truth as best as we can knowing that none of us has a claim upon it. But we are all under its light. Perhaps dying for truth will happen, like Martin Luther King. The willingness to be able to put oneself on the line. But most of us probably are not going to face that. I don’t know a whole lot of people personally who have died for faith. I think my mother was a martus, but she didn’t die for her faith.  She was definitely a witness to what was good and beautiful and lovely and important and hopeful.

The dying that really needs to be done is to our own ego and our ego’s shallow desires. Because even the quest for a glorious martyrdom is really ego-driven so one needs to die to one’s own need. Die to thinking and acting as if it is all about me.

So we are invited not only as Christians and as Muslims and as Jews and as Buddhists and as Hindus and as Wiccans and as those who practice no religion at all except perhaps human fulfillment to bear witness, to seek to tell the truth as best we can even when, and I will say especially when, the truth is not popular nor strategic.

My final statement. If we are to be saved and I believe and I trust that we will be it will be because of librarians. Librarians are the most courageous people I know and they have the most important task I know. And that is to preserve culture, to preserve the writings that have come down to us, to resist attempts at not only censorship but the book burning or book banning or control of what might be said and what might not be said.  So listen to those courageous stories of librarians who stand up simply for books and for writings and for access so that everyone might be able to know what was said at one time.

In an Orwellian time in which history is being rewritten by the powerful it is essentially important I believe for librarians and for those of us to bear witness to what is good and true.

I guess I do have one more final thing because this sermon sounds like it’s heavy duty. Go out and do all this stuff. No actually it feels good. It’s actually good. There’s an incredible lifting of darkness I think when people are able to die to one’s own ego and live for what is true and beautiful and peaceful. The stories of those who have done that in history are really spiritual stories and it does feel like life matters again.

Did you know that we are some of the most depressed people Americans and one of the reasons for that is because of the ego thing. There is a study done that asked for people who wanted to make to become happy and they also and they make a commitment to become happy and all over the world people who made a commitment to come happy became happier. Except for Americans. They didn’t become happier because according to this study when people of other cultures which are more communal perhaps than ours–happiness is a result of doing something for somebody else whereas Americans thought that happiness means going out to your favorite restaurant or treating yourself or somehow doing something for yourself in that way. And that does not necessarily lead to happiness as they found that it actually makes you more depressed. But the ones of those who sought happiness by seeking to do good for others actually attain a level of happiness. And I think that is a truth that transcends all of our religious truths but also brings all of those religious truths to a beautiful and higher light ultimately leading to peace within.

Now I guess I have one more thing and that’s that seed thing. When we think it is all to overwhelming, we know that we can plant a seed. Teachers know this, right? You are planting seeds with your students you are and you never know what the result might be and you can’t even dictate how that growth is going to come. But the idea of planting seeds is a powerful, beautiful metaphor. I think for a Christian life or a Muslim life or a Jewish life or a life of integrity to be able to say,

“I don’t know how I’m going to able to solve the world’s problems but I’m going to plant my little seed right here and we’ll see what happens.”